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The ability to move and inspire people through oratory is a powerful gift, and never more so than for national leaders at points of national crisis. In such times they are expected to provide direction and leadership for their people. They must project authority and understanding and have the communication skills to carry the nation with them as they set the agenda and tone for the national response. It is no accident that many of the speeches we are most familiar with were made during periods of conflict or other emergency.
Yet tone and delivery are also dependent on the circumstances in which the speaker is placed.
Formal and informal talk are forms of speech we use in everyday life, but the way we talk to people changes depending on who they are and the circumstances of the conversation. These differences are clearly illustrated when we analyse the supplied extracts from George W Bush’s speech to congress and his later television interview with a reporter for RTE.
Much of the contrast between the two examples can be explained by the context of the situation in which they were made. The speech to Congress came just nine days after the attack which destroyed the World Trade Centre buildings in New York. The US House Chamber setting is a natural amphitheater and President Bush speaks from the focal point of a central lectern, without challenge or interruption, to a captive and visibly supportive audience. This speech is about portraying control and strong leadership and delivering a message not only to a nation united in grief and anger behind him, but to the rest of the world waiting to see how America would respond to the attacks in New York and elsewhere.
From the outset the speech has a formal register. After a prolonged ovation when he is announced the President opens with a measured deliberate introduction to the assembled Congress and the American people. He uses a low, almost reverential monotone which has the effect of drawing in and refocusing his audience. The opening theme is about unity, this is literally the State of the Union address, but it is set against a backdrop of unprecedented events. He uses a range of devices and emotive language to remind his audience of the strength, unity and resolve of America in the face of adversity.
He names a passenger on one of the hijacked planes who “rushed terrorists to save others on the ground….an exceptional man named Todd Beamer,” before introducing Mrs Beamer and asking Congress to help him welcome her. There is prolonged applause for Mrs Beamer and a physical connection and reminder of the events of 9/11 is created through her presence.
He speaks about the endurance of rescue workers continuing past exhaustion, and uses symbolic language such as the unfurling of flags and the lighting of candles. He reminds his audience about people giving blood and saying prayers in English, Hebrew and Arabic. These three languages were not picked at random. They are also symbolic, used to reinforce the idea that America is a country that welcomes all cultures and languages. The President’s message is that this is not about Christianity, Judaism and Islam, it is a choice between good and evil, and right thinking people irrespective of their background and culture have chosen good. He further reinforces this by talking about the “decency of a loving and giving people who have made the grief of strangers their own.” The unspoken intention here is to contrast these examples of selflessness and desire to do good with the actions of those who carried out the 9/11 attacks.
The President concludes this section of his speech with another device to drive home the theme of strength through unity. He uses the phrase “my fellow citizens” to align himself with the whole country before declaring that through their actions over the previous nine days,
“the entire world has seen for itself the state of our Union……and it is strong.”
He pauses for effect at the word Union before delivering the next four words with heavy emphasis.
The President then becomes more expansive and introduces a more exaggerated world theme. America is called to “defend freedom” and he declares that for their enemies, one way or another, “justice will be done.” He thanks “the world for its outpouring of support” and uses a rule of three in reference to marking events in England, France and Germany. He is reminding the audience of America’s place and significance in the world, and in hindsight it can be argued that he is laying the ground to build the grand alliance needed to combat this new terrorist threat.
The theme of world significance is further expanded by recalling other marking events in Asia, Africa and beyond and naming the many nationalities of victims of the attacks. There is further emotive language with references to children praying, sympathy and days of mourning, culminating in a reference to being “once again…joined together in a great cause” with Great Britain. This is an open reference to the Second World War and a further clear signal that behind all his emotive reflection on the awfulness of the 9/11 attacks, and their binding and unifying effects on the American people, as far as the President is concerned the future will be about something else.
“Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done.”
Working from a prepared script this speech was delivered with measurement and confidence by a President who radiated control of his audience and setting. He used clear and emotive language to tell his audience, within and without the chamber, that the spirit and unity of America had emerged stronger than ever from the attacks. He also clearly signaled his belief that whilst this was a world issue, America would be at the forefront of the response to the attacks. The speech was about leadership, control and power.
In contrast the RTE interview took place some five years later in a much different context. The interview happened against the backdrop of the invasion of Iraq, and allegations of mistreatment of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers. Support for this war was far from universal, with many anti-war protests around the world. In Ireland and elsewhere there was much speculation about the evidence used to provide legal and diplomatic justification for the invasion, especially concerning weapons of mass destruction. The President is not working from a script but answering questions from a reporter who at times interrupts his answers with follow up points. Set against the speech to Congress this is a significantly less favourable and controlled situation from the President’s point of view. Rather than setting the agenda this is about trying to convince a much more sceptical audience that what he is doing is correct and still worthy of support.
From the beginning of the interview there is a stark contrast with the speech to Congress. Although it is a formal seated interview with a professional reporter the President adopts a much more conversational tone and informal register. There is little sign of the confident, clear and concise delivery to Congress. Instead his idiolect, emphasized by accent, is to the fore with phrases such as, “there’s bin”, “gotta lotta”, “put ‘em”, flew ‘em” and “ma office”.
Initially there is a strong impression that he either failed to properly prepare for the interview or he was taken off guard by the reporter’s opening question and quite searching tone. The reporter references anger in Ireland over the Iraq war and abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and asks President Bush if he is bothered by what the Irish people think? His reply has an unsure false start, “Listen (.) I-I-I-I-I hope the Irish people will understand the great values of our country…” and then develops into a quite rambling mixture which distills down to if you think the actions of a few soldiers is representative of America then you do not understand America. It contains fillers and hedges and various references to historical ties between the two countries,
“there’s bin great ties between Ireland and America…..we’ve helped the Irish and will continue to do so (.) gotta good relationship with Ireland.”
It also contains sentences that are not entirely coherent or grammatically correct. At one point he says,
“gotta lotta Irish Americans here that are very (.) proud of their heritage in this country (.) ere (.) but er (.) y’know er (.) they must not understand if they’re angry over Abu Ghriab if this is what America represents (.) they don’t understand our country.”
The overall tone of the answer is defensive and does not actually address the specific question posed by the reporter. It is also a long way from the tone of the speech to Congress. That President was the leader of a country that had been utterly wronged but was standing firm and reaching out to a sympathetic world offering to lead the defense of freedom. Somehow the passage of time and events has changed this message, at least in Ireland, to if you are angry about some of our actions then you just do not understand us, and by the way do not forget all the things we have done for you in the past.
The interview continues with the reporter prompting the President about anger over the war in Iraq. His reply is a long series of false starts that fails to make the killer point required and further illustrates his idiolect, which on occasion almost falls into slang. At one point he says,
“used weapons of mass destruction against his own people (.) against the neighbourhood.”
The reporter interjects to say that no weapons of mass destruction were found which draws a slightly exasperated appeal from the President to let him finish. This is a precursor for a later more vexed response. The President is pressed by the reporter on the point that the world is a more dangerous place than two years ago. When she interrupts to make a point about the intervention in Iraq a clearly irritated President responds,
“let me finish (.) let me finish (.) please (.) please (.) you ask the questions I’ll answer them (.) if you don’t mind.”
Based on the evidence of this interview the President is not comfortable fielding searching or semi-hostile questions about his decisions and actions, and is not adept at marshaling his thoughts into coherent and succinct answers in conversational speech. The contrast between his diction and delivery during this interview and his speech to Congress is stark. It is a revealing and telling example of the difference between formal and informal conversational speech, and how either can be affected by the setting and context in which the speaker is placed.
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